Inside the Republican Power Grab in North Carolina

The Republican Party in North Carolina is stripping the powers of the governor's office away in advance of a Democrat taking over the role, a last-minute move that has many in the state crying foul.

|
Dec 16 2016, 4:30pm

Pat McCrory, North Carolina's outgoing Republican governor, campaigns with Donald Trump in November. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Update: On Friday outgoing North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill that will reduce the powers of incoming governor Roy Cooper.

"If you can't beat 'em... fuck 'em," rapped Lloyd Banks on the G-Unit song "No Days Off." Though it's unlikely that any member of the Republican supermajority in North Carolina's state legislature has ever even heard a G-Unit song, that hasn't stopped the state house from taking Banks's advice. On Election Day, Republican incumbent Pat McCrory lost a bitterly contested governor's race to challenger Roy Cooper, and the GOP saw its 4–3 majority in the State Supreme Court was erased, leading many to hope that Democrats might have a fighting chance at reversing the far-right direction the state has steadily drifted in since 2010, when the Republican Party gained control of both houses in the General Assembly for the first time in 112 years.

Then, on December 2, Governor McCrory called for a special session of the General Assembly, ostensibly to focus on getting relief efforts to victims of Hurricane Matthew as well as "any other matters." Those who watch North Carolina politics closely speculated that McCrory's vague language was an invitation to the legislature to curtail wind energy development within the state, as well as reverse their losses in the state's judicial branch by passing legislation that would add two more seats to the state supreme court, which the lame-duck governor would have the power to appoint.

State Republicans dismissed the rumors in the build-up to the December 14 session, and on Wednesday approved McCrory's request for the disaster relief funds. Then, toward the end of the day's business, Republicans called for a second special session for Thursday. This time the purpose wasn't disaster relief, but radically reducing the power of the governorship that Cooper was about to take over. By the end of the day, Republicans had passed bills which reduced the number of potential gubernatorial appointees from 1,500 to 300 (there are currently roughly 1,400 McCrory hires working in state government), mandated that the governor's cabinet picks be approved by the state senate, and took away the governor's ability to appoint trustees to the University of North Carolina system. On Friday, the General Assembly will be voting on more measures still.

Democrats in the state legislature felt like they've been set up. "Some of these bills are 40 or 50 pages long," said Jeff Jackson, a Democratic state senator who represents Mecklenburg County. "They've clearly been working on this for months." Jackson told me he and other Democrats within the legislature felt as if the Republican supermajority had "[used] hurricane relief as a false pretense to bring us all to Raleigh and ambush us with two dozen bills off the conservative wishlist. It's massively disrespectful to voters."

"It almost feels as if Putinism has come to North Carolina," said Rob Schofield of NC Policy Watch, a liberal think tank. "The fact that Republicans are passing lengthy new legislation to rewrite laws with no notice sets a new low in North Carolina politics. They're just doing it to show you they're in charge." He continued, "This is a pretty brazen power grab that I think would even give conservative groups pause."

Indeed, some of the state's right-wingers are upset with how the Republican Party has gone about passing its agenda. Former Republican Governor Jim Martin spoke out against the General Assembly's actions, while Mitch Kokai, a senior policy analyst at the Raleigh-based conservative think tank the John Locke Foundation, expressed dismay at the legislature's tactics. Kokai told me that while "some of the ideas that are being considered are ones we've championed for a long time, the [legislature's] process is very flawed." He continued, "All of these are ideas that would benefit from having full discussion in a normal legislative session when you have time for [bipartisan] input." By introducing a flood of legislation with little notice, the state's Republicans have all but eliminated that possibility.

The special session is indicative of the openly spiteful attitude the Republicans have demonstrated toward the Democrats in the wake of the party's loss of the Supreme Court and the governor's mansion. For instance, a bill stipulating that the party affiliation of judges up for election be listed on the ballot comes on the heels of the party losing its conservative majority in the state's Supreme Court––a loss many Republicans have blamed on a state Board of Elections error that listed a liberal justice on the ballot before the conservative incumbent, which may have caused some who voted a straight Republican ticket to blindly vote against their interests.

The bill that lowers the number of gubernatorial appointees from 1,500 to 300, meanwhile, reverses a drastic increase the legislature enacted only after McCrory took office in 2012––meaning the vast majority of McCrory's appointees would keep their jobs under Cooper.

"This is something that's been done throughout history," North Carolina GOP chair Dallas Woodhouse* told WRAL News in Raleigh, referencing such events as the so-called "Christmas Massacre" of 1976 in which Governor-Elect Jim Hunt, a Democrat, asked for the resignation of 169 Republican staffers. "[The Democrats] are mad at what Republicans are doing, but they should remember they did it to us many times."

"Woodhouse is right," Kokai told me. "When Democrats were in charge, they pulled the exact same type of stunts." But just because this has happened before, said Kokai, doesn't mean it should remain the norm. "What you end up with is a cycle, where the party in charge will take steps to limit the input of the party that's in the minority. The next time the Democrats are in charge, they'll do the same." He added, "There has to be some sort of way to protect the minority party's ability to participate."

Right now, that's exactly what North Carolina Democrats are hoping to gain. State Senator Jackson told me that he and his colleagues are currently focused on the 2017 special election, in which he estimates that half the seats in the state legislature will be up for grabs. "If we can pick up enough seats to sustain Cooper's veto," he said, "the entire political landscape changes. It's not the beginning of the dream, but it's the end of the nightmare."

Until that happens, Governor-Elect Cooper is looking into other options to check the Republican supermajority in the state legislature. "This has got to stop," said Cooper in a statement. "Regardless of whether any of this legislation passes, I will use all of our tools, and we have a lot, to lead this state in the right direction." He intimated that this includes suing his own legislature "if I believe laws passed by [them] hurt working families and are unconstitutional." It's not a threat to be taken lightly––before his election in November, Cooper served as the state's attorney general, and established himself as a formidable presence in the North Carolina court system, and with the State Supreme Court's newly established liberal majority, the numbers are on his side.

"It'll be a tough fight," said Schofield of NC Policy Watch. "But in the long run I think it'll be OK."

An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina GOP, as David.

Follow Drew Millard on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels